The Baseball Gods Bow to Math

I have done a complete 180 on my feelings about the Mets since the end of the season. 2010 couldn’t have gone worse, but even more frustrating was the fact that it seemed like there was no hope in sight. As necessary as the departures of Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel became, those moves in and of themselves did not inspire me with confidence, because it seemed the real issue with the team was its tone-deaf, thoroughly unprogressive ownership.

Then they hired Sandy Alderson as their general manager, and my outlook changed from that second onward.

sandy.png* Apologies to whoever crafted my favorite Photoshopping of the 2008 presidential campaign.

Sandy Alderson is the architect of how modern front offices operate. There are
very few teams whose operations are not influenced in some way by what
he did with Oakland in the 1980s. Would Bill James-ian thought and top-down management made its way into the game anyway? Perhaps, but Alderson did it first, and it wasunbelievably revolutionary when he did it. To me, him running the Mets is like getting Frank Lloyd Wright to design my house, or Steve Albini to produce my album. (Full disclosure: I have neither a house nor an album.)

My biggest beef with the Mets in recent years has been how out of touch they were with the way competitive teams are constructed in the 21st century. I was frustrated by their complete rejection of anything remotely sabermetric. I was baffled by their seeming inability to attract top baseball minds to the richest media market in the country. While the Boston Red Sox–a team with comparable financial resources–assembled a juggernaut front office full of some of the best talent evaluators and number crunchers in the game, the Mets had their VP of player personnel challenging minor leaguers to shirtless brawls.

Overnight, all of these gripes were addressed, and then some. The fact that Alderson’s first hires were J.P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta, two Billy Beane acolytes prominently featured in Moneyball, is astounding. This not only creates a surplus of brain power in their organization, but also makes the Mets an attractive destination for an up-and-coming executive or talent evaluator, which they definitely were not this time last year. The Mets have already taken a quantum evolutionary leap. One second they were making crude stone tools, the next they were mapping the human genome.

Does the addition of Sandy Alderson mean the Mets will compete in 2011? I haven’t the slightest idea. The answer to that question depends in large part on Johan Santana, whose recovery from shoulder surgery remains a huge question mark. If he misses significant time, or is a shell of his former self, it’s going to be very hard for the Mets to win. I do think Alderson has the ability to improve this team right now. Whether they’ll improve enough to be a playoff team next season remains to be seen.

But even before he’s made a single personnel move (aside from picking up Jose Reyes’ option), I can say I feel more optimistic about this team than I have in a very, very long time. Because in the grand scheme of things, how the Mets do next year is not as important as how they set themselves up for the future, and they’ve already put themselves on the right track to do this.

The selection of Alderson as GM means the team will have a coherent philosophy and direction for the first time in a very long time, perhaps since the days of Frank Cashen. In both Oakland and San Diego, Alderson implemented organization-wide standards and goals, and there’s no reason to think he won’t do the same in New York. This is not as ground-breaking an idea as it once was, but the Mets have not attempted it in a long time, if ever.  After years of being lost on the backroads of baseball, Alderson’s hiring shows the Mets have finally decided to pull over and ask for directions.

The Mets couldn’t have indicated more clearly that they’ve made a break from The Old Way of doing things. Omar Minaya’s approach to building a team was a lot like Ed Wood (as played by Johnny Depp)’s approach to filmmaking: “It’s not about the little details, it’s about the big picture!”

Acquiring big time free agents like Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran? No problem. Surrounding those big time free agents with a supporting cast? Not so much. Even his backup/bench signings were “name” guys like Alex Cora and Jeff Francoeur, and he overpaid by several factors for the privilege, getting replacement level (or worse) production for sums that could have brought in several better players.

His administration would not–or could not–multitask. One problem area would be identified and targeted for each offseason, at the expense of everything else. Like 2009, when the Mets reacted to the bullpen woes of the previous year by signing Frankie Rodriguez and trading for J.J. Putz–and doing virtually nothing else, resulting in another lost season (though an injury epidemic of biblical proportions helped).

I have no such fears with Alderson. I have such faith in his abilities, in fact, that I’m totally indifferent to the managerial search. Before he was hired, I worried the Mets would take somebody for ticket-selling purpose, like Wally Backman. Now I feel that if Backman does wind up with the job, it’s because he was deemed the best man for the job.

My biggest concerns with Alderson are external: How will his regime be treated by the headline-hungry, chaos-loving sports press and an impatient fanbase that doesn’t necessarily know (or care) about his résumé? If the Mets are mediocre in 2011 (a distinct possibility), will fans and scribes alike scream MONEYBALL DOESN’T WORK! And will the Wilpons, who seem at times overly sensitive to criticism, get antsy if such an outcry occurs?

We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it. I have no expectations the Mets will sign a big-time free agent this winter, and yet I am filled with hope for their future. Weird, huh?